1 January 2008

BlackBerry Curve review

In mid November, our contract with AT&T (formerly Cingular) expired. We switched to T-Mobile and got BlackBerry Curve phones.

I was a BlackBerry skeptic for a long time. I didn’t think I wanted a phone with a full QWERTY keyboard. This changed when we looked at the phones available. It turned out that the Curve was only marginally wider than the average phone, perhaps a centimeter or so. It’s otherwise comparable to mid-range phones in size. It ends up being pretty much as portable as our Sony Ericsson Z520a phones.

The BlackBerry UI is best described as “retro”. The icons look like 1990s Windows, the text fonts look like 1980s Atari ST, and the general method of navigation most resembles Palm OS. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. Starting with the good, the UI is clearly designed from first principles to work well on a handheld device. The central trackball handles scrolling, pointing and clicking. It sits easily and naturally under the thumb. You can do pretty much everything with one hand, including browsing the web and checking e-mail.

This is in marked contrast to the iPhone, which pretty much requires two-handed operation. Windows Mobile devices suffer from having a desktop UI squeezed into a handheld form factor, and also require two hands, and often a stylus. Symbian is designed for phones, but the UIQ interface for smartphones uses a stylus. Overall, then, the BlackBerry works better than other phones I’ve tried when you’re standing in an airport with a coffee in one hand.

On the downside, it’s hard to find the icon you want in a hurry, because of their visual clutter. Perhaps a replacement UI theme would help; I’m a little tempted to grab the theme designer and start working on one, but it’s Windows only. The fonts were initially problematic too; nowhere near as nice as Apple’s, and they took some getting used to.

But when it comes time to reply to an e-mail, niggling issues with fonts were forgotten as I got to grips with the keyboard. Yes, it requires both hands, or more accurately both thumbs. It’s not as fast as a full size keyboard, but it’s faster than Palm Graffiti or Windows Mobile pen input, and much faster and less frustratingly error-prone than I found the iPhone’s on-screen keyboard to be. Unless Steve relents and allows a Son of Newton to use the Newton’s non-cursive text recognition, I can’t see it being bettered.

Textual messaging is where the BlackBerry really shines. It’s quite possible to thumb out fairly lengthy e-mail responses, or even update your web site. As far as IM, there’s support for Google Talk and AIM built in, as well as Yahoo Messenger, Windows Live Messenger and ICQ if you know anyone who still uses only those. There are third party clients for non-Google Jabber and other protocols, and in addition, there’s BlackBerry’s own BlackBerry Messenger, previously called PIN messaging.

If you have a friend who also has a BlackBerry, PIN messaging is definitely the way to go. The manual doesn’t cover its benefits, so I’ll digress a little here. Unlike other IM systems, PIN messaging is tied to the BlackBerry device by a unique ID. You connect with another person initially by sending them an invite via their BlackBerry-specific e-mail address, or any other address they access via BlackBerry e-mail. When they reply, their device records the device ID you sent, and sends you theirs.

The primary benefit of PIN messaging is that it’s push-based. The recipient doesn’t need to be logged in. If their phone is switched off, the message will be queued until they log on.

The second benefit of PIN messaging is that it’s reliable. Unlike SMS, messages don’t get randomly dropped. In addition, you get delivery confirmation automatically for every message: when you hit enter, the line you typed appears in the transcript with a small icon next to it indicating that the message is going out over the network. When your device receives positive confirmation that the recipient’s device has displayed the line you sent, the icon changes.

If that’s not enough, there’s a third benefit over IM or SMS: there’s a separate “ping” option. So you can set up your regular notification to be something discreet, and know that your spouse can ping you to set off something more noticeable if necessary.

Other than that, PIN messaging has the usual file transfer, allows you to send voice memos, and looks and behaves like regular IM. For us, it has completely replaced SMS, not least because it doesn’t cost 15¢ a message.

One interesting feature of the BlackBerry is that as well as individual icons for each messaging system, there’s also a unified inbox that shows IM, SMS and e-mail in one place. This makes sense, as they all have pretty much the same UI on the Curve; the protocol is almost an irrelevant detail. I believe that if you attempt to send pictures via SMS, the phone automatically uses MMS, but I haven’t tried it.

Web browsing is a mixed bag. The built in BlackBerry browser has two modes, mobile mode and “desktop” mode. Although there are references to WAP, the browser copes with both, the mode just determines how the page is formatted for display. In mobile mode it works like a typical phone browser, in desktop mode it tries to deal with things like tables, CSS and JavaScript. Overall it makes for a pretty good browsing experience, as phones go. (If you haven’t tried browsing from a phone, the main issue isn’t usually layout–it’s latency. Each page request takes a ridiculously long time to send, compared to a desktop system. I assume this is something to do with the mobile network.)

An alternative is Opera Mini, which takes the “thumbnail of page with moveable active area” approach to web browsing. It works surprisingly well with sites that the built-in browser can’t cope with, like zagat.com. (Yeah, good move, make a web site of restaurant reviews that doesn’t work with a phone browser.)

Maps are another strong point. There’s a map application supplied, but I downloaded Google Maps for BlackBerry, which is free and offers pseudo-GPS location by correlating your active cell to its geographical location. Accuracy can be as little as 50m or so in cities, up to 1km in the countryside. The Google Mail application also works well once downloaded.

The BlackBerry OS appears to be Java based, and is pretty solid. It’s more reliable than a Palm; I’ve only managed to crash it once, which is comparable to Linux on the N800 in solidity. Initial bootup (after inserting a battery) is horrendously slow, but once running it seems to use a soft power off which doesn’t require a full boot. The UI is generally responsive at all times, unlike some Sony Ericsson phones. You can put the phone into standby mode by holding down the power switch. In standby the screen and keyboard deactivate, but you can still receive messages and calls. The same hold-down-button action brings the phone out of standby instantly.

The one bug I’ve found so far is in the BlackBerry web browser. After a while the cache gets full and slows browsing down tremendously. The workaround is to empty the cache once a week.

The phone shows a lot of attention to the details of how a mobile device should best operate. For example, an ambient light sensor behind the notification LED turns the screen brightness down in dark areas, and automatically turns on the keyboard backlight. The LED itself has behavior customizable through the notification options; each event (phone call, IM, SMS) can have any or all of a user-chosen sound, vibration, and LED flashes. You can even set different messaging systems to have different notification; for example, I have IM just flash the LED a few times, unless it’s a PIN message from the spouse.

Mac sync is a bit of a sore point. There’s a package called PocketMac that BlackBerry purchased and now give away for free. It worked for me, more or less, but had some annoying bugs. (For example, syncing with a subset of address book records didn’t work, and editing records on the BlackBerry resulted in duplicates.) The solution is simple enough: Mark/Space have a Missing Sync for BlackBerry, which makes everything work, and even syncs user pictures so you can see the face of the person calling you if you’ve given them a picture in OS X.

Overall, it’s the best mobile phone I’ve used. Whether it’s good for you will of course depend on your use cases. If you’re someone who likes to talk to people or use voicemail rather than IM or e-mail, or if you have little patience for customizing software, the iPhone is probably a better bet. It certainly look prettier. But if you prefer text to voice and prefer functionality to prettiness, the Curve beats the iPhone hands down. This may change once they stop crippling the iPhone and open it up to third party applications; we’ll see. For now, I’d pick the Curve again, even if the iPhone wasn’t tied to AT&T.

Update: Oh yeah, the Curve is also a quad band phone. That’s de rigeur, so I didn’t even think it was worth mentioning.

© mathew 2017